American Beverage Giants Start Counting Calories on Vending Machines

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When Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly faced off Saturday in a mock debate, the topic of whether the government should decide what size soda consumers should drink was brought up and summarily dismissed, but there are plenty of other folks — like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who aren’t letting the issue go.

The just-passed law that Bloomberg pushed to help keep New Yorkers healthy by making it illegal to sell sodas larger than 16 oz. in many New York establishments will go into effect on March 12. And Bloomberg isn’t alone. A soda-tax measure was put on the ballot in Richmond, California, that would discourage consumers from drinking soda and collect money through a soda tax “for neighborhood gardens, recreation and other youth projects that would help fight childhood obesity,” BeyondChron.com reports.

Sick of being called a bad guy in the war against obesity, the American Beverage Association (and the soda giants it represents) today launched a “Calories Count” vending machine program that will start being distributed in the new year. The ABA’s new initiative will help consumers identify lower-calorie sodas in vending machines by placing soda calorie counts right on the buttons of vending machines.[more]

The Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, and PepsiCo (which today unveiled its next-generation interactive vending machine incorporating nutritional information) have all signed on to be part of the effort. A prototype of the new machine by Coca-Cola, for instance, showed 20-ounce bottles of its flagship Coke drink and Sprite inside vending machines, with labels on the glass stating ‘240 calories.’

The program is part of the ABA’s Delivering Choices local marketing campaign and the ABA’s commitment in 2010 — in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” outreach to the restaurant and beverage industries — to display calorie counts more clearly and effectively “at every point of purchase,” from product labels and packaging to vending machines and point of purchase signage.

As the ABA announced,

The Calories Count Vending Program will offer consumers clear calorie information, encourage lower-calorie beverage choices and remind them that calories count in all the choices they make. On the front of vending machines, they’ll see Calories Count™ signs that include one of the following messages: “Check Then Choose” or “Try A Low–Calorie Beverage.” The selection buttons will also include calorie labels that show calorie counts per beverage container.

More than 500 of the new machines will be placed in municipal buildings in the cities of Chicago and San Antonio at the start of next year, with a nationwide launch to follow. “These vending machines will allow Chicago’s workers to make healthy choices and good decisions, in keeping with their individual wellness goals,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to announce the initiative, stated. “I am pleased that Chicago is one of the first cities in the country to offer these machines that help to promote healthy lifestyles.”

As part of the campaign, the ABA Foundation will fund a $5 million “wellness challenge” between the cities of Chicago and San Antonio. Through Chicago’s “Chicago Lives Healthy” and San Antonio’s “Three Month HealthPOWER Weight Loss Challenge,” over the course of a year, city employees and their families are going to battle it out to see who can be the healthiest city employees and lose the most weight, a competition applauded by Coca-Cola in a press release.

“Healthy people and healthy communities have always been a priority for Coca-Cola,” stated Steve Cahillane, President and CEO, Coca-Cola Refreshments. “Our support of the Chicago and San Antonio Wellness Challenge, and the new Calories Count Vending Program is another bold step in our efforts to help people understand the importance of energy balance. We believe partnerships like this — those which involve government, industry and civil society — can have a meaningful impact on the obesity issue. We applaud the cities of Chicago and San Antonio for joining us in this innovative initiative.”

“This appears to be an attempt by the industry to start an initiative — not just to make diet and low-calorie products available — but also to try and motivate consumers to buy and consume more diet and low-calorie products, i.e., to shift consumer behavior,” commented John Sicher, editor and publisher of trade publication Beverage Digest, to the Associated Press.

The move also follows McDonald’s U.S. announcement last month that it’s adding calorie counts on every menu board and drive-through across the country.

Even though the vending machines aren’t launching in New York, one place that has already instituted Bloomberg’s soda size is the city’s brand new Barclays Center, home to the Brooklyn Nets and Jay-Z’s ego. It’s also where 16-ounce sodas are selling for $4, fifty cents cheaper than the 20 oz. Dasani water. So it’s still cheaper for somebody to drink the sugary stuff than the agua. And as the Village Voice points out, if you’re hurting for caloric intake at Barclays, you can always chow down on a 1,200-calorie burger.

No word what Hizzoner thinks of that happy meal, although at least consumers can now scan the calorie counts to figure out just how many minutes they’ll need to spend later with their Shake Weight.

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